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Those who have suffered a wrongful allegation of child sexual abuse will know how hurtful it is to hear the often repeated statement, ‘false allegations are extremely rare’. This seems to be the automatic response whenever a false allegation of sexual assault is uncovered. The intention no doubt is to reassure genuine victims that their complaint will be taken seriously and they won’t be automatically assumed to be lying.
No falsely accused people in prison because of failure to disclose evidence?
Insult was added to injury this week. The Telegraph reported that Alison Saunders speaking on the BBC Today programme said that she did not believe there was anyone in prison who has been wrongly convicted because of failure to disclose evidence. Again, according to the Telegraph, with regard to the appropriate degree of investigation of sexual assault she said ‘if people have known each other for a day, you might look at the texts between each other on that day or perhaps a day after . . . but you wouldn’t and couldn’t without a huge amount of resources, completely download a phone and trawl throughout it all”.
Are wrongful allegations of sexual assault or abuse really rare?
Let’s deal with these assertions one at a time. Firstly, the statement that false allegations are extremely rare is questionable at the very least. In the last month there have been four cases where information fatally undermining the case for the prosecution was only made available at the last minute and they appeared to have been wrongfully accused. These are four people’s lives that have been severely damaged by the publicity and fallout that inevitably result from being charged with sexual assault or rape. Now it has been revealed by the CPS that during 2017, in addition to these cases there were another 13 prosecutions for rape that were abandoned shortly before going to trial.
More examples of false allegations
A colleague from another group that supports the falsely accused has kept a record and there were over 240 wrongful allegations of child abuse and sexual assault in 2017 alone. The list of false allegations in 2017 is available here It makes sad reading. Included in it are the 13 who were wrongly accused of downloading child pornography because of “typographical errors” in connecting IP addresses (used to trace a computer downloading such material) with the right person. 120 known to the same organization could not be named in this document because of their desire to remain anonymous. These recorded cases may be the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone who is arrested is charged. We will never know how many of these people are actually innocent, but it is our experience that some of those arrested and not charged are factually as well as legally innocent.
Sir Richard Henriques view
Sir Richard Henriques addressed the issue of false allegations of child sexual abuse in his report on Operation Midland. In section 1:37 he quotes Dame Elish’s review in which she sought to analyse the ‘false reporting of sexual violence’. She looked at 299 cases and identified 36 (12%) as false using a broad definition and 9 cases (3%) using a narrow definition. As Sir Richard remarked, it doesn’t matter which definition of a false allegation is used, ‘from the perspective of an innocent suspect, the definition is irrelevant’. Dame Elish also consulted focus groups of ‘first response officers’ and found they believed there was a high level of false allegations. Later in the same report, section 1:41 describes how Operation Fairbank ‘the SIO observed that the vast majority of 400 complaints were without merit.
Rare isn’t the same as unimportant
Even if wrongful allegations were extremely rare, which they are not, then that would not mean they could be ignored. If a doctor did not treat you for an extremely rare disease, you would feel justifiably upset. The suffering of the wrongfully accused can be as severe and long lasting as a serious illness. Read the The Oxford University study ‘The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victim’s Voices’ if you are in doubt.
Alison Saunders’ assertion that nobody is in prison because of failure to disclose evidence is unbelievably optimistic. This belief rests on the assumption that human error is impossible and miscarriages of justice never occur. The fact that human error exists explains the need for the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Court of Appeal. Moreover it has been the experience of FACT members that it can be extremely difficult to obtain disclosure of evidence that could help their defence.
Finally Alison Saunders believes that the police don’t need to thoroughly search phone records and social media as part of an investigation into sexual assault. Mr Makele, whose was nearly sent to prison because there was vital evidence on his phone that hadn’t been examined, would disagree. So would Liam Allen and Isaac Itiary, who were also saved by last minute disclosure of phone evidence.
The just way to perform an investigation
Wrongful allegations do exist and are not ‘extremely rare’. The police should tell the public ‘if you make a complaint we will treat it very seriously and investigate it thoroughly (my italics) without fear or favour’ to use the words of Sir Richard Henriques and the instruction to the police to ‘believe the victim’s account’ should cease. All of this is in Sir Richard’s report to the Metropolitan Police made over a year ago, and it is time it was implemented in full. Until then, nobody can rest assured that they won’t be wrongly convicted for sexual assault.